Military & Aerospace

Should the Indian Army Stay out of Politics?
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Vol. 37.1, Jan-Mar 2022 | Date : 04 Apr , 2022

Of late, several media reports have been warning about an unholy nexus between the Indian military and the ruling party, which could dilute the secular credentials of the former and even lead to military rule.

The fact that many of these concerns were expressed by senior retired military officers as well as veteran political and strategic analysts lent credence to the hypothesis, which mostly revolved around how:

The government was piggybacking on the exploits of the military for political mileage.

Several senior serving officers, including India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash near Coonoor in early December 2021 with 11 others, were apparently aligning with the ruling party’s political agenda to furthering their own post-retirement careers, and thus severely eroding the apolitical and secular nature of the Indian army.

The increasing religious polarisation in the country which obviously impacts our people in uniform as well, particularly in the days of social media and other powerful ways of spreading disinformation.

General Rawat had apparently criticised the leadership of the anti-CAA and NRC (National Register of Citizens) bills, thus interfering in domestic politics to curry favour with the government.

The government also strengthened and armed the central police forces, which have a totally different command and control structure, and placed their camps ostentatiously near the military cantonments.

Here’s what Maj Gen Yash Mor, (Retired), who served in South Kashmir and Punjab in counter-terrorist operations, had to say in an article in The Print.

“…Defence Minister Rajnath Singh performed shastra puja during the Dussehra festival while visiting Army formations in the northeast. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit Ladakh to ‘inspire and motivate’ the troops asked the soldiers to organise a puja of the Indus river. The defence minister on his two-day visit to Ladakh and Jammu and Kashmir decided to visit the Amarnath cave with the entire military hierarchy standing behind him with folded hands. Rajnath, during his France visit for Rafale delivery, was seen performing rituals that at best is, again, unit-level activity, and not for the consumption of the people at large.

“These symbolic gestures and activities have never been seen or publicised in the secular Indian Army. The body language of the Generals standing to oversee these ceremonies also make for a sorry picture. This is the new normal and it looks ominous in the long term for an army that is passionate about its secular and pluralistic culture and ethos,” he concludes.

In an interview to a British university radio station just before the 2014 elections, I had argued that the Indian military was probably the only secular institution in the country. And that several attempts by our venal politicians to inject their poisonous versions of religious, casteist and ethnic divisions into a professional fighting force had been summarily rebuffed by successive military leaders.

So what, if anything, has changed since then?

Perhaps the late General ML Thapan, PVSM, who fought in two major campaigns in World War II, and then in the India-Pakistan wars of 1965 and 1971, had an answer. Described by several of those who knew him as a ‘Thinking Man’s General’, his 89 years sat very lightly on him when I met him in his tiny apartment in New Delhi’s Som Vihar, way back in the winter of 2007.

…that several attempts by our venal politicians to inject their poisonous versions of religious, casteist and ethnic divisions into a professional fighting force had been summarily rebuffed by successive military leaders.

When I asked him about the impact of the number of scams and reports of malfeasance by senior military officers on the morale and the image of the Indian army, his sharp response was tinged with a mix of sadness and anger.

“What about the image of the rest of the people? In the government?” he asked. “Why assume that the Army will stay clear of it? After all, we are all part of the same system, the same country, the same culture. It is like water, which finds its own level. At some point of time, a stop will have to be put to it. It will be force of circumstances.”

Lamenting the loss of morality in the country, he said: “There is no accountability in this country at all. You can get away with anything. When that happens… the younger generation, who does it learn from? Only from their superiors. If their superiors are in that game, then the younger generation has no choice. It is very sad.”

According to him, “The Army is very large now, much larger than it was in my days. When you expand beyond a certain figure, a dilution takes place. I think the dilution has taken place, and everything has gone for a six in the process. Discipline is not the same as it was in our days. The approach to your profession is not quite the same. The approach now is career prospects. Everyone wants to climb to the top of the ladder. This is not possible in the Army, unlike in civil life. The Army organisation is referred to as a pyramid, but actually it is more like a pagoda. Unlike the pyramid, which is very narrow at the top, the pagoda is fairly well proportioned at the top. So that is one reason for the change.”

Many Indians sanctimoniously point to the fact that unlike our smaller neighbours, (as well as our large one in the north) the fact that India has never had military rule is evidence of how deep-rooted the country’s democratic traditions are. But there is a lot more to it than that.

In his brilliant book, “The Army and Nation, The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence”, Prof Steven I. Wilkinson explains how the Indian National Congress (INC) took several far-reaching steps, which were discussed and debated long before Independence, to ensure that the military remained under civilian rule even in the bleakest of circumstances, something that Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and other neighbours failed to do.

While listing out all these measures would be beyond the purview of this article, suffice to say that apart from ensuring that political and social dissent did not escalate into a situation that allowed the military to use it as excuse to take over, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his advisers took several effective measures to block and deter the military from assuming power.

After realising that reshaping the military structure to reflect India’s diverse population, instead of the so-called ‘martial races’ defined by the British who dominated it at the time, would be prohibitively expensive, Nehru and his ministers started by degrading the army’s institutional autonomy, limiting the tenure of senior-most generals and discouraging co-ordination among them, encouraging competitiveness and parity among the three service chiefs, keeping a close tab on all senior officers even after they retired, and sending several of them off on extended diplomatic postings.

Click to buy

Nehru’s decision to convert Flagstaff House (later known as Teen Murti Bhavan) the residence of the ‘Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces in India’ into his personal residence was a duly considered action to publicly show the military who the real boss was.

Separately, the government also strengthened and armed the central police forces, which have a totally different command and control structure, and placed their camps ostentatiously near the military cantonments. India’s armed forces owe their loyalty to the Constitution of India, as symbolised by the President, who is their Commander-in-Chief, while these police forces report to the home ministry, giving the government a well-trained force to counter any coup attempt.

Nehru’s government made some decisions in the first decade after independence, ‘although it is important not to credit Nehru with too much in the way of flawless judgement and foresight,’ warns Wilkinson.

His blind spot towards his defence minister, the mercurial and ambitious Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon, was certainly among his worst judgment calls. Menon’s toxic attitude towards the forces, reflected in his ‘bullying and interference in military decision making and military’s internal hierarchy and organization—for instance by cultivating his own links with favourite officers and encouraging juniors to inform on seniors—was deeply destructive,.’ says Wilkinson. ‘Krishna Menon had in fact superseded, bullied and marginalised several of the army’s most capable officers, and this and his control over access to Nehru had weakened the army’s ability to respond to threats, communicate with politicians about military realities, and protect the country.’

The blatant condescension shown by civilian bureaucracy in the defence ministry – many of whom probably don’t know the difference between a pistol and a cannon – towards senior officers continues to this day, although things have started changing slowly given the rising threat perceptions in the neighbourhood.

So while all these measures taken in the early years of Independent India ensured that the Army remained subservient to the civilian leadership, it also limited the military brass’s ability to offer strategic inputs to the government during wars, leading to the fiasco of the 1962 border war with China. The rout led to Menon’s resignation (and some even say hastened Nehru’s death), as well as a massive recruitment drive which trebled the size of the Indian military, which General Thapan felt actually diluted its credibility as an apolitical fighting force.

The fundamental difference between civil street and the barracks is not discipline or patriotism or the ability to bear and use arms. It is the spirit of selfless sacrifice which is constantly drilled into every soldier, be it a jawan or a young officer, and a powerful comradeship in which caste, creed, religion or ethnicity are irrelevant. This cheerful willingness to die for the three “Ns”—Naam, Namak, and Nishan (‘Name’, or the honour of the unit/Army/Nation; ‘Salt,’ or allegiance to the Nation; and ‘Nishan’, or the mark/insignia or flag of his unit/regiment/Country) is what really separates the ‘fauji’ from the man on the street.

Most politicians, on the other hand, sit on the ‘I, me, mine first’ end of the spectrum, where their interests come first, and the nation’s interest are usually irrelevant unless it benefits them in some way. As Ayaz Amir, one of Pakistan’s best columnists and a former military officer and politician himself, once lamented: “the trouble with our ‘mulk’ (neighbourhood) is not that we sell ourselves, but that we sell ourselves cheap.”

But just like there are politicians who care about the nation, there are also soldiers who don’t. The youthful idealism of newly commissioned officers often turns into cynicism and bureaucratic concerns over promotions and protecting one’s turf. And there will always be those who feel let down by the system, which has limited room at the top. This in no way justifies any aberrant behaviour, but at the end of the day, as General Thapan put it, both the politician and the soldier come from the same stock, and no matter how strong the training and indoctrination is, the genetic tendency is to revert to type. Add religious sentiments aggressively promoted and disseminated through social media, and the mix becomes even more difficult to ignore.

This is where the leadership, political, military and civilian, has to play a critical role. Particularly the Army, where the chain of command is clearly laid out, and the deep-rooted martial traditions and discipline still stand a chance of pushing back against such noxious attempts to erode its very soul. Not only should the top brass lead by example, they should also make an example of anyone seen to be flouting the fundamental credentials of a military unit, which is based on a truly secular camaraderie, a brotherhood that no other profession can ever offer.

And we as civilians must immediately call out any attempts by politicians—or military brass—to exploit or erode this esprit de corps.

Does that mean our soldiers cannot have political views? Absolutely not. In fact, they should be actively encouraged to join the political process, because their leadership training and other skills and values can only add value to our polity. It might even dilute the growing perception that politics is the last refuge of scoundrels. I for one would certainly vote for a retired ‘fauji’ rather than some scum bag with criminal cases against him. But they cannot do this while in service. And like bureaucrats, depending on their seniority, they must have a cooling off period after they resign their commission or superannuate before they can join active politics.

Will this be enough to stop the erosion of what is perhaps the only secular institution in our nation? Sadly, the answer is no.

As long as we have people who believe that national security is secondary to domestic political gains, we will always have insidious attempts to dilute the military’s apolitical and secular credentials, and senior officers willing to compromise their own oaths to uphold the dignity of our constitution for personal benefits.

To prevent this creeping scourge, we need to go back to the drawing boards, just like the INC did before independence to find ways and means to pre-empt military rule, and think of innovative ways and means to insulate the military from such dangerous trends without compromising on its ability to offer strategic thinking when needed. Extremely harsh and exemplary punishments for both politicians and soldiers who violate this sacred covenant is just one possible way.

Although it is being done more for financial rather than strategic reasons right now, the attempt to pare down the sheer size of the military to make it a lean and mean fighting machine is perhaps another step in the right direction, because it is far easier to find and groom a few fine young men than to compromise on the quality of our officers for the sake of filling empty posts.

And finally, we must remember that these young men and women who comprise our armed forces have all sworn to give up their lives to protect ours. And ask ourselves whether we are worthy of that sacrifice. Because if we are not, we cannot blame them for wondering if their vows were really worth upholding.


Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Ramananda Sengupta

is a Strategic and Foreign Policy Analyst, and an Editorial Consultant with IDR.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left

One thought on “Should the Indian Army Stay out of Politics?

  1. “the attempt to pare down the sheer size of the military to make it a lean and mean fighting machine is perhaps another step in the right direction”

    Hopefully “they” will not start enforcing religious texts from 6th Std in “Sainik Schools”

More Comments Loader Loading Comments